In Georgia Tech spring game, one highlight amidst offensive torpor

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas (5) pitches the ball to Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Isiah Willis (3), not pictured, during the 2016 Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Georgia Tech's campus, Saturday, April 23, 2016, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Save a 76-yard run and a 25-yard touchdown pass, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas was not exceptional in Saturday’s spring game, but he didn’t have a single fumble, including on this pitch to A-back Isiah Willis. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

While the problems with Georgia Tech’s offense in Saturday’s spring game were many, there was one thing that the Yellow Jackets did exceedingly well.

Tech made it through all 108 snaps (both teams) without a single fumble. I feel reasonably confident saying that is likely a first for a spring game in Johnson’s tenure and a noteworthy accomplishment. (In the rain-soaked 2014 spring game, for instance, there were 13 fumbles.)

Tech was second to last nationally last season with 36 fumbles (all the more alarming considering that only five teams ran fewer offensive snaps (775) last season than the Yellow Jackets), which was no small factor in the team’s 3-9 finish.

Fumbling has been a trouble spot for Tech through Johnson’s eight seasons; the Jackets have finished in the bottom 10 nationally in fumbles seven times. It is no coincidence that the one year that Tech escaped the bottom was the 11-win season in 2014, when Tech tied for 69th out of 128 teams.

Making it through Saturday without a ball on the ground is all the more impressive considering that quarterback TaQuon Marshall was just finishing his third week at quarterback and one of the B-backs, Dedrick Mills, is in his first semester with the team, and that the fourth quarter was a collection of players who typically don’t get a lot of time running the offense. That is typically a breeding ground for botched center-quarterback exchanges, mishandled meshes and errant tosses, to say nothing of downfield fumbles.

While often a byproduct of the offense because of the increased ball-handling, fumbles are particularly costly for Tech in that a) the Jackets typically play a low-possession game, making each lost drive and play more costly; b) the offense is predicated on getting something out of every play. As has been noted often, this isn’t an offense made to consistently handle second-and-10, much less third-and-10. So even fumbles that the Jackets recover can be drive killers.

I don’t think that Saturday’s game is necessarily a forecast of offensive malaise for the 2016 season. While he was quite unsparing in his evaluation of the first-team offense, Johnson also acknowledged that the offense and defense have gone back and forth in holding the upper hand in scrimmages this spring. It was only last Wednesday that Johnson said that the pass protection was “better than it was,” which isn’t exactly a plea to AP voters to place the Jackets in the preseason top 25, but isn’t an indictment, either.

Center Freddie Burden has been out all spring with thumb surgery. I believe he will regain the form he showed in 2014. Last year’s top offensive playmaker, Clinton Lynch, was held out of the scrimmage with an unspecified injury. Wide receiver Christian Philpott, perhaps the team’s top deep threat, was out all spring with a hamstring injury.

The depth on the offensive line is paper thin, and quarterback Justin Thomas looked more like his 2015 self than the 2014 version on Saturday, although I believe some of that had to do with the offense as a whole playing a little sluggishly (which Johnson placed on Thomas’ shoulders). There are clearly problems to solve.

But, with four months yet until the season begins, I think there’s considerable variability with how the season will play out. The offense may well turn out to be as unproductive as it was Saturday, but history suggests otherwise. And if the Jackets can be as effective as they were Saturday when it came to holding onto the ball, that could be pivotal.


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